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Review: Talib Kweli – ‘Eardrum’

By Daniel B. Honigman

The Jewish golem parable is probably one of the last things you’d expect to read on, but here goes: In late-16th century Prague, an edict commanded that all Jews in the city were to be killed. A rabbi, desperate to protect and save his people, created a golem made of clay that became so powerful it couldn’t be controlled. The golem eventually had to be destroyed.

Hip-hop is this golem. It’s 2007, and hip-hop finds itself struggling to remain relevant as a result of its overexpansion. Over the last three decades, it has become so powerful that it’s turned on itself. It’s no longer an art form. It’s no longer empowering. It isn’t even exciting.

Hard to believe, isn’t it? We may be witnessing death of a musical genre in less than half a century after its inception. Hip-hop culture may be irreparably damaged and lost forever. It, as Nasir Jones would say, is beyond saving – it’s dead.

Perhaps not. Maybe hip-hop has one more chance to survive. Maybe hip-hop has an Arnold Schwarzenegger-type Terminator as its savior that’s all that stands between the genre and complete annihilation. Or homogenization.

This bothered at least one of hip-hop’s pioneers more than a decade ago. “People have to understand what you mean when you talk about hip-hop, hip-hop means the whole culture of the movement,” <strong>Africa Bambaataa mused in a 1996 interview with celebrated hip-hop historian and commentator Davey D. Getting hip-hop back to its roots would be no easy task, he continued, but it would be a simple one to start, at least. “We need to do what brother Malcolm X, The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Minister Farrakhan and many others had suggested – read books.”

If the burden of representing hip-hop culture were placed on one with the highest hip-hop I.Q., few would be more qualified for the role than Talib Kweli. If it were based on hip-hop skill, the answer, more than likely, would still be Mr. Kweli. The son of two college professors, the Brooklyn, New York native Kweli is known for his smart, earnest rhymes – after all, it is his namesake. (“Talib,” an Arabic name, means “seeker” or “student,” and “Kweli” is a Ghanaian name meaning “of truth” or “of knowledge.”)

From his Rawkus Records days with DJ Hi-Tek and Mos Def, through collaborations with, Kanye West, The Roots, Madlib, Just Blaze and others, Kweli has earned the moniker of the highly skilled, conscious rapper. He tasted some mainstream success with the West-produced “Get By,” a single off his 2002 album “Quality” (Rawkus Records) and with several appearances on the now-defunct “Dave Chappelle’s Show.” His last album on Rawkus, “The Beautiful Struggle,” however, signaled the beginning of a short slump.

Kweli then signed with Koch Records, of which rapper 50 Cent (who lists Kweli as his favorite hip-hop artist and one of his primary influences) referred to as “an artist’s graveyard” earlier this year on New York’s HOT 97 radio station. While on Koch, Kweli released “Right About Now,” a mixtape album that dangerously tiptoed the thin line separating himself from irrelevancy. The album’s one redeeming quality may be that it left many fans eagerly awaiting the next new Kweli release, still hungry from the paltry offerings on “Right About Now.”

“Eardrum,” his highly anticipated new album, if anything, has successfully pushed him back into modern hip-hop’s upper crust. (If he had ever fallen from it, really.) Originally slated for release last November off his own label Blacksmith Records (Atlantic), Eardrum was pushed back several times as he continued to record new songs and tweak the tracklist. As a result, its release date was TBD for a while, much to his fans’ chagrin, then listed as July 24 and pushed back once more after the album was leaked on the Web. Along the way, he and acclaimed producer Madlib released the well-received “Liberation” mixtape.

With “Eardrum,” Kweli’s intentions are clear from the start – he’s not looking to create club hits anymore. He’s about soulful beats and adroit, meaningful rhymes. Right off the bat, he lets us know that his latest offering was worth the wait. Instead of opening the album off with a home run, he starts with a smooth single, the Madlib-produced “Everything Man,” a tune reminiscent of “Reflection Eternal”-era Kweli.

The album continues with several strong tracks (“N.Y. Weather Report,” “Say Something”), and like hip-hop in general, Kweli seems to find himself at a crossroads. On the Just Blaze-produced “Hostile Gospel Pt. 1,” arguably the album’s best track, he laments hip-hop’s commercialization, and it’s on this track that Kweli really shines. (“I start a conversation based on general observation/Hip-hop is not a nation, take it to population/n****s got a lot to say when locked inside the belly of Satan/awaitin’ trial, debatin’ how the hell I got placed in this system/Am I a victim or just a product of indoctrination?/They exploit it and use me like a movie with product placement/You hear the congregation – this is the hostile gospel/The truth is hard to swallow, it’ll leave you scarred tomorrow.”)

“In The Mood,” produced by Chicago native Kanye West, features renowned jazz vibraphonist and acid jazz innovator Roy Ayers, successfully blends the genres, (In one of the album’s last-minute changes, West himself also adds a solid verse.)

But it isn’t until “More Or Less” that Kweli battles his hip-hop demons and offers a solution. (“More originality/less biting off ‘Pac and Big/more community activism/less pigs/more Blacksmith and Def Jux/ less Geffen and the rest ‘cause the rest suck, they got the shit all messed up”) “Electrify,” a Pete Rock-produced track on the leaked Eardrum album, unfortunately didn’t make its way to the final product. However, this is one of the album’s only missteps.

There have been several critically acclaimed rappers whose music has fallen on deaf ears. Kool G Rap, Big L, AZ, Jeru the Damaja – these are all artists for whom good reviews and a couple of bucks would get a ride on the El. Fortunately for Kweli, this album won’t fall on deaf ears, and hopefully for Kweli, critical acclaim will translate into record sales.

Kweli will be able to get on that El. The rest of us can only pray that the rest of hip-hop follows him on board.